WAG: In The Truth About Dogs, you
relentlessly debunk the notion that dogs show
anthropomorphic traits like loyalty, sympathy
or guilt and instead declare them whoppingly successful
social 'parasites.' On the other hand, you readily
acknowledge your own deep and abiding affection
for dogs. What should the level-headed, scientifically
informed dog owner expect of his dog, and is that
enough to keep the bond strong?
Dogs unquestionably experience
many of the same emotions we do—love, anger,
lust, fear, loneliness. But there is pretty solid
evidence from experiments and observation that
they just can't make the leap to understanding
that other beings experience thoughts or feelings
different from theirs. And that means that emotions
that depend upon imagining how others feel—such
as sympathy, or envy, or even loyalty, are probably
beyond dogs' capability.
That doesn't bother me, because
I love them for what they are. I wouldn't like
dogs to be just furry little people. And probably
more than that I am fascinated by them. Dogs look
at the world in some ways that are very different
from our own, and that amazing window on the natural
world is one of the great benefits we gain from
sharing our lives with dogs—as long as we
are honest in our view of them.
What harm (if any) is done when dog owners
decide, despite the evidence, to treat their dogs
as if they really do feel loyalty, sympathy, guilt,
Well, this is a crucial point,
because the number one reason I think it's so
important to have an honest view of dogs and to
be on guard against anthropomorphism is that anthropomorphism
is bad for dogs. It's not just some philosophical
argument; it has very real practical consequences.
If you think your dog "knows" he's been
"bad" when he tears through the garbage
while you're gone and that he's doing it deliberately
to annoy you, you are going to start getting resentful
and probably punish the dog in ways that are in
fact going to be useless and probably even counterproductive.
If you think your dog is showing you affection
when he jumps up on you and puts his paws on your
shoulders—that is, if you anthropomorphically
interpret that as a "hug," as many dog
owners do—you are heading for big trouble,
since from the dog's viewpoint this is an expression
of his dominance—which you are actually
reinforcing. Dominance aggression is probably
the leading reason people wind up relinquishing
their dogs over to shelters. So the point is that
dogs that are treated as children are not
happy dogs and are often profoundly uncomfortable
with their place in society.
In The Truth About Dogs, you refer
to animal rights activists as "animal rightsniks."
Where do you disagree with them, primarily?
Primarily? Let's see...for starters,
on moral, biological, social, legal, philosophical,
evolutionary, and aesthetic grounds. I think the
animal rights movement sometimes shows a profound
ignorance of the very animals they profess to
champion. And I don't think it makes any sense
to try to apply the human legal, social concept
of rights to the natural world, which is fundamentally
amoral. We have vast responsibilities, as thinking
human beings, to other species and to the natural
world. We also rightly should take joy and wonder
in the natural world. But I am struck by how sterile
and bitter and crabbed a view of animals the animal
rightists often take.
How do you go about organizing a book like
The Truth About Dogs? So much of it is
derived from extended research that it would seem
hard to structure the book—to know, precisely,
what you are writing about—before you've
actually done the legwork. Do you, in fact, know
roughly what you're after before you begin researching
topics or do you (at least initially) browse casually?
It's possible, thanks to
the wonders of the Internet, to do some quick
and broad searches through the scientific literature
to get an initial sense of what's being studied
out there. I also had a good sense of the general
fields of dog research that are going on because
of the trawling I had done for my previous book,
The Nature of Horses. Obviously everyone
who sets out to write something as long as a book
has a rough idea of where he wants to go with
it. But the short answer is that you never
can—and perhaps this is my journalistic
background—but I also think you never should—even
think about writing a final outline for a book,
article, essay, or haiku for that matter until
you've done the reporting. On the way you always
find new things that are going to force you to
constantly revise your thoughts and plans.
Unless you're a walking encyclopedia, you
must have found yourself saying "Ah ha!"
while doing your research. What surprised you
most while working on The Truth About Dogs?
I think the genetic studies
on the interrelatedness between dog breeds was
the biggest eye opener for me. I had known that
dog breeds were probably of fairly recent origin,
but it was quite striking to see such powerful
evidence that there had been a worldwide flow
of genes for tens of thousands of years among
dogs, and that all of these nice stories about
the separate and ancient origins of certain breeds
were probably hogwash.
You've written five books about nature
and science. Which came first for you—a
general interest in writing or an abiding interest
in nature and science?
I have to say it wasn't
one or the other. I've always been interested
in both, and science writing is the best way to
get to do both.
What are the most satisfying elements of
science writing? And what are the most difficult?
The best thing is that it's terrific
for people with short attention spans. A colleague
of mine at U.S. News & World Report
once said to me that what was great was that you
get to become the world's greatest expert on something
new each week—and then you never have to
do it again. That is of course a tongue-in-cheek
overstatement, but the rewards of being able to
learn about something entirely new for each project
you tackle are what keep me going. That is, of
course, also the difficulty of this business,
but that's what makes it so satisfying.
What other science writers do you admire?
And what is it about their writing you value over
other science writers'?
I think one of the pieces
of popular science writing I still admire most
is Richard Rhodes's "The Making of the Atomic
Bomb". He's not exactly a "science writer"
in that he writes about a lot of other things,
but his ability to understand and explain some
extremely tough science—and above all to
place it in a human and historical context—is
just superb in that book. My friend and colleague
Matt Ridley (author of "Genome" most
recently) is another science writer who I greatly
admire; I think what I like about his writing
is the way he can popularize a very difficult
subject in a very entertaining manner, yet without
a hint of pandering or oversimplifying, which
is the curse of so many science writers.
Finally, are you working on a book-length
Cats is next, also for Viking.
My book on codebreaking in World War II, (Battle
of Wits, Free Press) just came out as well,
and down the road I am very interested in doing
another book on war and technology and the intersection
between the two.